THE GHOST IN THE SUNDANCE MACHINE HAS A name, and it isn't Miramax. It's “Mother” (pace Alien), the extensive radio network that allows the festival's core staff, along with hundreds of volunteers, to stay in constant communication throughout the 10-day, regionwide event. “Mother” is also the official on-air handle of Greg Carttar, who, along with his wife, Charlene (“Mother Superior”), and brother, Larry (“Mother's Brother”), own and operate Rock & Roll Radios, or R3. Based in Missouri, R3 specializes in communication infrastructures for large-scale special events, and over the last four years has become an integral part of what makes Sundance tick.
Almost two weeks before the start of this year's festival, the Carttars began to put in place the nearly 5 tons of equipment necessary to maintain communications — more than 400 walkie-talkies and 26 radio channels — in Park City's mountain environment. It's a massive network, modeled after the command-and-control protocol used by military and civilian emergency agencies but adapted to suit the temperament of an artistic-minded community. (Greg first learned the ins and outs of radio from his father, a non-tactical-communications specialist for the U.S. Air Force.)
The Carttars closely monitor the radio chatter from the fourth floor of the festival's hotel headquarters. Within the walls of their tech-cluttered adjoining rooms, they hear everything, from the mundane to the potentially scandalous. During the world premiere of director Larry Charles' Masked and Anonymous, Greg punched up, on his receiver, a handful of the system's channels in rapid succession, crafting a real-time, behind-the-scenes aural collage of the event — rather like Tom Cruise conducting the imagescapes in Minority Report. “We get as far inside an event as you can get,” says Greg. “We are more inside the event than the people who run it.”
Which is why the Carttars take matters of confidentiality very seriously. In many ways, it is their professional detachment that makes the system work. “We hear a lot of conversations that are private and sensitive, but we're not really interested in content,” says Greg. “We're only interested in the fact of the conversation, in facilitating that.”
In the case of emergencies, Mother's omnipresence is absolutely essential. “Our first year at the festival, we had a heart attack at one of the theaters,” Greg recalls. “I was on my way to Burger King as the situation developed, but I was able to take control of it from my car. I got the necessary people together on the same channel, kept the volunteer calm, got the information to the 911 operator. It unfolded like clockwork, and the guy turned out okay.”
All well and good, but what about all the celebrity gossip that must be flying over the airwaves? “To be honest,” he says, “if a journalist listened in on the chatter, what he would hear would be the nuts and bolts. He wouldn't hear anything sensational. Sensation only happens when the journalist repeats it.” Still, even the most routine communications over the radio network stand to become part of the festival's insider lore. Accounts of R3 radio chatter can make up a significant part of “VenNews,” the unofficial newsletter circulated among theater volunteers and staff at the end of each festival day. It's there that you can read about the volunteer who used Mother to call for help when a theater's 50-foot length of masking tape proved insufficient to rope off all the seats reserved for an arriving star and his entourage. Or the all-points bulletin that went out for juror Tilda Swinton's missing mittens, “a great big fuzzy fake-fur pair” given to her by one of her children. Then there was the anxiety-fraught “Where's [dramatic-competition juror] Forest Whitaker?” episode.
Not that the Carttars encourage such gossip, especially over the air. “Mother will spank,” says Greg. “We require people to play nice, and to exercise common rules of courtesy and respect. Still, most people feel that Mother has their best interests at heart.”